Dinner at 6 or 7? A Time-change Tale

White-crowned sparrow and chipping sparrow sharing a feeder. Photo by Shutterstock.

One of the few good things to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic was the renewed activity in simple, less commercial pastimes. Bread making was rediscovered. Interest surged in baking cookies, knitting, gardening, and all kinds of handcrafts as people re-experienced ways to reduce anxiety and stress levels. And, of course, bird watching and, in particular, bird feeding flourished. With the growing number of new converts to birding, the number of questions also mushroomed. 

I can readily answer most questions I receive about birds. But, occasionally, I get one that comes out of left field. Or, as happened last October, I got a question that was so simple and the answer so obvious that I was not exactly sure how best to answer it.  

I received a panicked call from a new birder who explained she was anxious about the impending switch from daylight saving time back to standard time. She was concerned that the time change would confuse the birds using her birdfeeder. She carefully explained that her birds usually make their last visit of the day to her feeder at twilight, around 7 p.m., just as it is starting to get dark. Then, before it gets totally dark, she takes her feeder indoors until morning so the night creatures won’t get at it.   

How, she wondered, will her birds know that we switched time? After the time switch, if the birds show up for their usual 7 p.m. feeding time, it will no longer be twilight—it will be dark. This week’s 7 p.m. would have been 8 p.m. last week. The sun will have set. They might not see any food. How do they know about the time change? Who tells them? 

Pine siskins gorge at a backyard feeder. Photo by Shutterstock.

 

I had to pause before answering her question. She was somewhat confused. The clock time change has no effect on the birds. They don’t use clocks or watches, so they never really know what time it is. A bird doesn’t know (or care) if it is 6:00 or 7:00,  or if it is a.m. or p.m., or Monday or Tuesday. Those are artificial measurements created by humans for other humans.  Birds simply live in the moment and judge the time of day using an internal clock based on the position of the sun. In their world, when the sun rises, the day begins. It doesn’t matter whether we humans call it 5 a.m., 6 a.m., or 7 a.m. To a bird, it is sunrise. That is all the bird needs to know. And when the sun goes down, it is nighttime.   

So, the woman really does not have to worry about warning her birds about the upcoming change from daylight to standard time. The birds don’t care. During DST she noted that, based on her clock, the birds arrived at her feeder around 7 p.m. Now, during standard time, she will see them at 6 p.m., seemingly one hour earlier. But from the birds’ perspective, they will continue to arrive at the same time every day—about one hour before sunset. Their schedule doesn’t change at all; it just seems that way to us. 

A similar apparent time shift will also appear to happen in the morning. Let’s say you enjoy having your first cup of coffee while watching the chickadees at your bird feeder.  During DST, that may have been around 7:30 a.m. for you (two hours after sunrise for the birds). Once we change to standard time, you might have to get up one hour earlier to enjoy breakfast with the chickadees. But the chickadees will continue arriving at the same time—two hours after sunrise.   

Black-capped chickadee at suet feeder. Photo by C. Putnam / Wikimedia.

I admit, the biannual shift between daylight and standard time is always a bit confusing. I am never sure whether I will be gaining or losing one hour of sleep. I rely on the old adage “Spring forward, fall back” to correctly adjust all my clocks. (And I should also confess that after recently purchasing a new car, it took me three days to properly adjust the clock. In the interim, I was never totally sure of the exact time or whether I would be one hour early or late for a scheduled appointment.) But after a week I’m adjusted to the new time, so it really doesn’t matter. 

The birds have a better system. They live every day in a mindful way, unrushed by the clock. 

So how did I answer the woman’s concern? I took the easy way out. I assured her she didn’t have to worry or warn the birds about the time change. I said it was just one of many innate instincts that birds are born with. That’s how robins know that they should eat worms and not sunflower seeds. Or how baby birds know that hawks can be dangerous even though they have never seen one before. I asked if she had a pet, a dog or a cat? Who tells her pets about the time change? They just seem to adjust automatically. 

That answer seemed to satisfy her.   

White-breasted nuthatch eating birdseed from a backyard feeder. Photo by Shutterstock.

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